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Tuesday, 22 July 2014


Folk Museum: Going... Gone
How MoMA Trashed West 53rd Street
By Catherine Smith
[WritersClearinghouse News Service]
New York 

In 1961 a folk art visionary conceived and established the Museum of American Folk Art and, with his collections and other donations, endowments and support, inaugurated
the museum in 1963 on the rented parlor floor of a brownstone on West 53rd Street. The collections, endowments, subscribers and visitors grew. 
In 1979 MAFA purchased two brownstones on West 53rd Street. In its quirky, somewhat  ramshackle venue the museum gained renown and clientele, and, to the surprise of all, began to become a destination. Growth and popularity continued. Exhibitions gained favor. The Clarion magazine succeeded. Notable art, collections and quilts and textiles continued to be donated.
And Board Chairman Ralph Esmerian pledged continued financial support and the donation of his valuable folk art collection.
Plans were made for a new home and financing was secured. Architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien -- the same architects who later designed the new Barnes Foundation building in Philadelphia --  were commissioned for the task.
In 2001 the 85-foot tall, eight story bronze plated façade building opened to enthusiastic architectural, artistic and public  acclaim. Its huge skylight brilliantly illuminated the
entire vertical building core and the cantilevered stairways were the topics of much animated press coverage and public conversation. Having objects strategically displayed in groups over the perimeter walls with seating and conversational niches, all illuminated with natural light, was both innovative and well received.
Exhibitions and attendance matured and grew. 'The Red and White' show at the Armory and the Darger Collection were smash hits.
In 2010 Mr. Esmerian was indicted for fraud and financial misdeeds including double pledging his collections. (While offering them as donations to two recipients, he alledgedly used them as collateral for loans to monetize his ongoing financial schemes).  He was tried and fined $20-million and sentenced to six years in prison.
Part of his collections was awarded, in a court order, to the museum, though there was
was no financial reward. The Folk Museum began to  founder and lost some credibility
with Mr. Esmerian's connection.  It was bolstered by financial support Carnegie Corporation and from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, among others, but this help was insufficient to avert ruin.
In 2009,  at the brink of insolvency, the museum defaulted on its loans and sold its jewel box building to its next door neighbor, the Museum of Modern Art, for $31-million to
satisfy most its intractable debt of $32-million.

Almost immediately, MoMA announced its intention to raze the Folk Art Museum building. It didn't meet its artistic taste. A three-day furor ensued in the press and in social media at the prospect of losing the Folk Art building. Artists, architects, artisans, and citizens expressed.  MoMA agreed to reconsider demolition.
American Museum of Folk Art radically reduced staff, though not its holdings, and moved its collection to a West Side annex. Through collaboration with others, well -organized travelling exhibitions, imaginative community involvement and programs and modest stagings at base, it retained its subscriptions and donors and restored its credibility and  financial footing. Ther museum is now near Columbus Circle, across from Lincoln Center.
In April, 2014, the former museum building was sheathed in scaffolding as MoMA announced its imminent demolition.

Pedantic propaganda ensued and sketches were released of a second glass monstrosity to be erected, the only way MoMA could see fit to house and display its priceless holdings.

Nearly in unison, thousands said, "No thank you, MoMA."
All to no avail.
The eccentric, but beautiful American Museum of Folk Art is soon to be no more. It joins the Donnell Library and other real estate corpses of West 53rd Street, to live only in history